How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors destroyed the lives of
seven innocent North Carolinians – and have yet to admit they were wrong

“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by William Frederick Yeames, 1878, depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family

“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by William Frederick Yeames, 1878, depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family


Will a court pay attention?

April 13, 2021

If I had harbored even an iota of doubt about Junior Chandler’s innocence, it would’ve been vaporized by the podcast episode below.

Most dramatically, the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic’s meticulously assembled “Impossibility Exhibit” demonstrates that Junior was nowhere near the scene of his imaginary crimes….

But is the court paying attention?


Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….


Salem profits from its historic shame – so why shouldn’t Edenton?

151029SpoonsOct. 29, 2015

“You have to be … inventive to brand yourself as a Halloween capital – extending a one-night affair into a monthlong celebration and inviting hundreds of thousands of visitors into your streets – when for centuries you were known as the community that put innocents to death for witchcraft. How did Salem, Mass., repackage a tragedy as a holiday, appointing itself ‘Witch City’ in the process?…

“About 200 years after the trials, a Salem silversmith issued a souvenir spoon, featuring a witch holding a broomstick. Other mementos followed. It was difficult to hit the right note: The Salem-based Parker Brothers company issued, then quickly discontinued, a witchcraft card game…. When Arthur Miller visited Salem in 1952, he discovered the subject was taboo….

“Meanwhile the city fell on hard times…. As if by magic, a different kind of enchantment arrived in the form of the ABC sitcom, ‘Bewitched.’ It seemed that an ancestor of Samantha, the main character, had been convicted of witchcraft during the trials….

“In Samantha’s wake, Salem recast its inglorious past, or at least some version of it…. The city transmuted its secret shame into its saving grace. In 1982 it introduced ‘Haunted Happenings,’ later extending the holiday into a four-week festival. ‘Salem owns Halloween like the North Pole owns Christmas,’ The Boston Globe declared….  Halloween is to some extent year-round in Salem, where you might well bump into a goblin in a sandwich shop in July.

151029Statue“Three hundred years after the trials, Salem unveiled an elegant, understated memorial to the victims. Three hundred and thirteen years after the trials, it unveiled a gleaming statue of the ‘Bewitched’ star, Elizabeth Montgomery, on a broom. Not everyone liked the idea: A former historic district commissioner clucked that one might as well plant a likeness of Colonel Klink at Auschwitz. But the 1992 memorial was arguably not itself possible without ‘Bewitched.’ It isn’t easy to commemorate an atrocity. ABC’s domestic goddess had both laundered and folded the history….”

 – From “First, Kill the Witches. Then, Celebrate Them.” by Stacy Schiff in the New York Times (Oct. 24)

Edenton may lack the springboard of a popular sitcom, but this 1993 letter writer foresaw the tourism potential of remembering the Little Rascals case.  Proposals for a statue – or a spoon – anyone?

‘Too many therapists with too little expertise’

Sept. 11, 2013

“Why did the epidemic of day care hysteria happen just when and where it did? Why in 1982? Why in the United States?…. You can’t have a panic about day care centers unless you have day care centers. These had become a necessary fixture of American life as more mothers entered the work force, families traveled far distances to chase available jobs and there were fewer available grandmothers to help babysit. Undoubtedly parental guilt in turning over parental responsibility played a role.

“Among therapists, there was concern over previously not taking seriously enough the statements of kids who had actually experienced sexual abuse. There were also too many therapists with too little expertise who were able nonetheless to self-promote and gain authority as fake ‘experts.’ This sad episode is the clearest caution imaginable to any therapist feeling the impulse to jump onto a current or future fad bandwagon.”

– From “Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life” by Allen Frances (2013)

Despite Dr. Frances’s timidity in exposing the “complete bunk” of multiple personality disorder, his influence across psychiatry is undisputed. But will his words be sufficient to deter the next generation of overreaching therapists from jumping onto the “fad bandwagon”?

Prosecutors staged revival of ‘spectral evidence’

130405SalemApril 5, 2013

“In the Little Rascals Day Care case testimony was given about children being attacked by sharks kept in a pool by the accused. No prosecutor believed this story, and had such tales been told by adults, their credibility would have been laughed at…. However, (two Edenton defendants) were convicted, because under a new precedent, obviously false stories by children were set aside in the minds of prosecutors and juries, because of the belief that testimony from children needed to be treated differently….

“In (the Salem Witch Trials of) 1692, as in the modern day-care cases, the heart of the episode was the claims of the accusers versus the denials of the accused. Jurors were forced to choose between two sets of competing claims with no independent verification for any of them. Although not all the accusers were children, many were, and the idea of protecting the children played a heavy role in the prosecutions.

“Accusers claimed that the specters of the accused hurt them…. This kind of uncorroborated evidence became known as ‘spectral evidence,’ and on the basis of that evidence convictions routinely occurred. Contrary to popular, modern representations, all this took place in an orderly manner in a special court set up to investigate the outbreak. Within the rules of the day, the accused people had fair trials, just as the (day-care defendants) had a fair trial.

“What brought the trials to an end was the growing belief by the elites in Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the clergy, that spectral evidence could not be trusted…. The trials continued, but under a new court where spectral evidence was not admissible, (and) the convictions largely stopped….”

– From “No Finality in Fells Acres” by Bernard Rosenthal, author of “Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692”

“In spectral evidence, the admission of victims’ conjectures is governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations, whether or not objectively proven facts are forthcoming to justify them. (State v. Dustin, 122 N.H. 544, 551 (N.H. 1982)).”

– From “Spectral Evidence Law & Legal Definition

“Governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations” – doesn’t that nail it!

‘A good day for justice’ in Texas – why not in NC?

Charles Sebesta

Charles Sebesta

Feb. 13, 2016

“The disciplinary board of the Texas State Bar on Monday affirmed the agency’s decision to disbar Charles Sebesta, the former prosecutor who oversaw the wrongful death sentence of Anthony Graves.

“Graves, who spent 18 years in prison, including 12 on death row, for a fiery multiple murder he did not commit… had asked the Bar to hold Sebesta accountable for withholding critical evidence of his innocence.

“ ‘The bar stepped in to say that’s not the way our criminal justice system should work,’ Graves said. ‘This is a good day for justice.’ ”

– From “State Bar board affirms disbarment of prosecutor who sent innocent man to death row” by Brandi Grissom in the Dallas Morning News (Feb. 8)

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes that “Sebesta’s conduct was shocking but remains a relatively rare example of prosecutors being held accountable in such cases of prosecutorial abuse.”

Although the Texas Bar displayed little eagerness to bring a prosecutor to justice – and disbarment is a petty consequence indeed for the enormity of Sebesta’s malfeasance – its response seems darn near heroic compared with the shameful vindictiveness we have come to expect from the North Carolina Bar.


Postcard from the bumpy path to exoneration

120903Montgomery-BlinnSept. 3, 2012

Since its creation by the General Assembly in 2006, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has considered more than 1,100 innocence claims, three of which resulted in exonerations.  This is from a letter I wrote the Innocence Inquiry Commission requesting that it take up the case of the Edenton Seven:

“I am fully aware that my request falls outside the letter of your mandate. It is of such importance, however, that I believe consideration by the Commission would be both just and appropriate.”

And this is from the response I received from Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director:

“By law the Commission is only permitted to consider claims arising from current convictions. We cannot consider cases in which the conviction was vacated, even if the claimants were not fully exonerated.

“I am familiar with the (Little Rascals) case as I studied it both in college and in law school. In fact, I cited the case in the brief for a 2007 Commission hearing….

“I am sorry that the Commission cannot be of further assistance. The only other option I am aware of is a Gubernatorial pardon. The surviving defendants from the Wilmington 10 case have recently applied for pardons.

“Thank you for contacting the Commission and for continuing to bring attention to this important case and the subject of wrongful convictions. I am proud that North Carolina is first in the nation to have a state-run innocence commission.”

Another door to exoneration is closed, however sympathetically. Others remain.

Footnote: The hearing Ms. Montgomery-Blinn mentions grew out of a 2001 case in Pitt County. Henry Reeves had been convicted of taking indecent liberties with his 6-year-old daughter, Marquita. This passage in the Innocence Commission’s investigative statement caught my eye:

“Barbara Hardy (the child’s mother and the defendant’s wife) stated that when Marquita came out of her sessions with Dr. (Betty) Robertson, Marquita would have gum or little presents, and Marquita would state ‘Look what she gave me for getting the questions right.’

“Mrs. Hardy said that she tried to tell Dr. Robertson that Marquita was a people pleaser  and may say things just to be rewarded, but Dr. Robertson said, ‘I believe it happened, and it’s going to court.’

“It is important to note that Dr. Robertson…. provided therapy and evaluations to 23 of the children in (the Little Rascals) case….”

Still rewarding possibly-abused children for “getting the questions right”?  Did Betty Robertson learn nothing from the 23 false positives she reported in Edenton?

California taking seriously the misconduct of its prosecutors

Assemblywoman Patty López with the Dalai Lama in June.

Assemblywoman Patty López with the Dalai Lama in June.

Aug. 13, 2016

“A bill to increase criminal penalties for prosecutors who intentionally withhold or falsify evidence is headed to the [California] state Senate after being approved in committee.

“The measure by Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, would upgrade the violation from a misdemeanor to a felony for offending prosecutors. It’s already a felony for police officers to withhold or falsify evidence. The proposal provides for sentences of 16 months, two years and three years.

“The bill received the go-ahead from the Senate Appropriations Committee despite opposition from prosecution groups that say it is redundant and potentially costly.

“Opponents say that boosting the penalty for prosecutors would bog down the courts and that prosecutors already are subject to sanctions by the state Bar Association when they commit misconduct.

“Supporters argue that judges and the Bar rarely take action against offenders.”

– From “Bill boosting penalty for prosecutor misconduct gets OK” by Tony Saavedra in the Orange County Register (Aug. 11)

Is it possible that other states, such as California, aren’t as timid in disciplining prosecutors as is North Carolina?


Montaigne and St. Augustine, of course, were never DAs

120127MontaigneJan. 27, 2012

In “The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal” (2002), James Franklin points out that Montaigne opposed witch trials for their lack of evidence.

“I am of St. Augustine’s opinion,” Montaigne wrote, “that ‘ ’tis better to lean towards doubt than assurance, in things hard to prove and dangerous to believe’….

“After all, ’tis setting a man’s conjectures at a very high price, upon them to cause a man to be roasted alive.”

It’s not too late to exonerate, Mr. Attorney General

140121CooperJan. 20, 2014

“Eighteen months ago I petitioned Attorney General Roy Cooper to issue a statement of innocence for the Edenton Seven.


“ ‘In 2001 Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift signed a resolution proclaiming the innocence of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials. In time, such victims of the ritual-abuse day-care panic as the Edenton Seven will surely receive similar exoneration. Why not now? Why not in North Carolina? This is an opportunity to demonstrate moral leadership on a national scale.’ ”

“Cooper has yet to respond.”

From “Like Salem’s ‘witches,’ it’s time for NC to exonerate the Edenton Seven,”
my Jan. 19 op-ed column in the News & Observer (cached here) on the 25th anniversary of the first Little Rascals sexual abuse complaint.

Investigation without end, injustice without end?

150508BrittMay 8, 2015

“A new investigation by the governor into ‘culpability’ has some concerned that he may be caving to the political pressure inherent in the pardon process – particularly given the exhaustive review and judicial imprimatur that the (Henry) McCollum and (Leon) Brown cases have already received.

“The original prosecutor, Joe Freeman Britt, has publicly opposed any pardon for the men. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that they’re not entitled to a pardon, and there in no doubt in my mind that they’re not entitled to compensation for the taxpayers,’ he said in the March (16) New York Times story.

“But attorneys involved in the case and other who work in this area say that the governor’s work has already been done for him.

“ ‘A district attorney would not have consented to their innocence, and a judge would not have put innocence in their order, if there was any level of culpability,’ said Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence….”

– From “Begging for a pardon: Why some of the wrongfully convicted could go penniless” by Sharon McCloskey at NC Policy Watch (May 6)

Now that Gov. McCrory has returned from the Global Gourmet Games, perhaps he is at last bringing his ‘culpability’ investigation to an end. But the question remains: Why did he open it in the first place? Why was it appropriate to add eight months to North Carolina’s brutal mistreatment of McCollum and Brown? Surely, it wasn’t an effort to satisfy the notorious Joe Freeman Britt!

Clemency now rare; is it fear of blowback?

131207Pardons1Dec. 8, 2013

“Obviously, there’s a modern trend towards more limited use of executive clemency that extends beyond the current president. I speculate that the increased media scrutiny given to pardons and commutations has made presidents reluctant to exercise clemency…..

“The same trend… may be present in North Carolina as well…. Most of Governor Easley’s pardons were in cases in which DNA evidence exonerated the defendant, while almost all of Governor Perdue’s pardons concerned the racially tainted Wilmington 10 cases…. It is too early to tell how much, or how little, Governor McCrory will exercise executive clemency.”

– From “Do Only Turkeys Get Pardons?” by Jeff Welty at the North Carolina Criminal Law blog (Dec. 5)

The chart above, compiled by Welty, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of Government, depicts poignantly the odds faced by Junior Chandler and others pursuing clemency from recent North Carolina governors.

Since Jim Hunt left office in 2001, pardons have become historically scarce, paralleling the drop-off at the presidential level.  But that smattering of clemency, as Welty points out, is most like to occur in December, under cover of the Christmas spirit.

When imaginary crime leads to real punishment

131202TavrisAug. 20, 2015

“In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine testified on behalf of an elementary-school teacher who had been accused of being a pedophile.

“A child had told his mother that the teacher had taught them about ‘boobies and dicks’ and had drawn a picture on the blackboard that sounded suspiciously to the mother like an image of an ejaculating penis.

“The police had raced to the classroom and confiscated the damning evidence: several copies of ‘Moby-Dick.’ What the teacher had drawn was a whale and its spout.

“Looking back, we can see that the only boobies involved in this case were the adults. But whenever we are in the midst of a moral panic, as we were in the 1980s, we feel that our alarm is reasonable and that punitive solutions are appropriate.

“Dicks? That child knew the word ‘dicks’? Cancel sex ed! Run that teacher out of town!…”

– From “A Very Model Moral Panic” by Carol Tavris in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 7)

Separate disciplinary panel needed for prosecutorial excesses

Online version of editorial.

Online version of editorial.

Jan. 20, 2016

“The Jan. 15 editorial ‘The limits of zeal’ contrasted the penalty given Christine Mumma with the absence of rebuke to prosecutors for the ‘massive failure’ that kept her client wrongfully imprisoned for more than 36 years.

“It is not enough simply to point out this shameful disparity. The public embarrassment resulting from the hearing should move the North Carolina State Bar to empower a separate disciplinary panel to deal only with prosecutorial excesses. Such a panel would not lack for business.”

– From “A Panel for Prosecutors,” my letter to the editor of the News & Observer  (Jan. 19) (text cache)


Edenton newspaper shed little light on case

130313LoomisMarch 13, 2013

In researching his master’s thesis, “Modern Witch Hunts: How Media Have Mishandled Ritual Child-Sex-Abuse Cases,” UNC Chapel Hill journalism student David O. Loomis focused on the inadequate coverage provided by the weekly Chowan Herald in Edenton.

“North Carolina law,” Loomis acknowledged, “prohibits official disclosure of information about ongoing criminal investigations. Under the circumstances, gathering information about questionable interrogations conducted in therapy sessions would be a difficult and complex undertaking for a small reporting staff on a tight budget….”

The comments he elicited from Jack D. Grove, former managing editor of the Herald, reflect the challenge stories such as Little Rascals present tiny newsrooms – and the severely limited guidance they are able to make available to readers in forming opinions:

On his journalistic experience: “I was never a professional reporter.”

On being almost three months behind the Elizabeth City Advance in starting to cover the story: “In a small town like Edenton, reputations are at stake. Reputations are everything in a small town.”

On relations with prosecutors and police: “The district attorney became our prime source…. I didn’t ask questions of the Police Department at all, because I knew what the answers were going to be…. I did ask Brenda Toppin, who I did not know was lead investigator, but I got an uncharacteristic cold shoulder. She said, ‘I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.’ That was interesting.”

On the newsroom budget: “I could only make long-distance calls when the boss would let me. He never refused. But he had to approve.”

 On outside pressure: “I was approached by several influential businessmen who clouded up and rained all over me for putting a (Little Rascals) story on the back page. I said, ‘Go tell Pete Manning (the publisher), don’t tell me.’ These businessmen, almost all parents of Little Rascals children, went into a closed-door meeting with Pete. We never again had a story anywhere but on the front page after that.”

Courtesy of David Loomis, “Modern Witch Hunts” is now available on the Bookshelf of case materials on this website.

25 years ago: ‘Innocence Lost’ debuts

160507InnocenceMay 7, 2016

Twenty-five years ago today, “Frontline” aired Ofra Bikel’s landmark two-hour documentary on the Little Rascals Day Care case. It turned out to be the first of three installments over the next six years.

About the “satanic ritual abuse” day-care panic of the 1980s and early ’90s, historian Mary De Young says:

“Ofra Bikel certainly pounded a nail in its coffin. Her excellent work on the Little Rascals case appeared after the last day care ritual abuse case was prosecuted, but she created a reason to be profoundly skeptical of all the cases that came before.”

“Innocence Lost” is unavailable on DVD, but you can view all eight hours here.


Still waiting for that ‘huge mea culpa’

Sept. 6, 2013

“The day-care trials couldn’t have happened without the active participation of social workers and therapists.  Police authorities relied on the therapists to interpret what the child witnesses were saying, to interview the children and to counsel them about their alleged experiences. One might suppose that the realization that:

  • People have been sent to prison for years for crimes that never happened;
  • Children had been abused, not by the accused, but by misguided therapists who implanted false memories;

would have created a huge mea culpa among the professionals involved.  This hasn’t happened.

“Some have defended their actions, if not the results, on the basis that their hearts were in the right place.  Some have excused themselves on the basis that nobody knew any better – that, by golly, nobody could have guessed that rewarding children for making accusations, and questioning them until they did make accusations, might just lead to false accusations.

“And they speak, in self-pitying tones, about the ‘backlash’ – the (presumably) undeserved and irrational criticism that is flung their way.”

– From  “The ‘Ritual Abuse’ Panic” at Imaginary Crimes

Mum’s still the word from the prosecution therapists in the Little Rascals case, except for Judy Abbott’s resentful response to the “backlash.”